Thursday, January 26, 2006

When I Was Walter Cronkite's Favorite Geek

"It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in 5 years." John von Neumann

Have you seen that picture? It supposedly shows in 1954 what a computer would look like in 2004. My sister sent it to me and I thought, Hmm, could be true. I'll tell you why in a minute. But the closer I looked, the more skeptical I got.

I found the skinny on Fictitious '54 Home Computer. And who do you think was responsible for this clever hoax? Who else but an IT geek.

I'm not a true geek myself, but I do have some unique creds.

I was at Penn (home of the first computers) in the late 60s when one of the earliest operating systems, FORTRAN was being developed by IBM. A computer operator loaded a program into the computer from magnetic tape, paper tape, or punched cards for data input and output.

There were no PC's as we know them today. Those first machines cost millions each. The tiny screen for viewing and entering code was dwarfed by room-sized computer monsters called ENIAC, UNIVAC, SEAC, ILLIAC and MANIAC, to name the top five.

This picture's the real deal. And it only shows about one-third of the machine.

Penn Special Collections-Mauchly Exhibition 11

Fast forward to 1976. The Commonwealth of PA undertook a radical experiment -- we became the first state in the country to computerize the electoral filing process. Hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions required from candidates to be placed on the ballot. In a presidential election year. With PA a pivotal primary state.

That's where I came in. I was serving then as PA Commissioner of Elections. Don't ask. An odd twist in my career to be sure. I was in fact filling in for a few months because ... wait for it ... the former Commissioner had a nervous breakdown.

Believe me, I felt his pain.

Dozens of geeks took over a wing of our building in the state capitol to assemble a giant "computing machine." Programmers created punch cards to feed the monster. Huge cables lined the hallways to my office and hooked into a small monitor next to my desk. Voila! The first PC.

We were under way. The petitions rolled in, the programmers did their thing and before long I had only to type in a few commands and neat lists of candidates and information scrolled down my screen.

Then the primaries began. PA was suddenly the focus of national attention. And I was suddenly the main conduit of information on the presidential candidates for local and national news media. I spoke to researchers, editors, news directors and occasionally the Talent.

Walter Cronkite called me "That Gal." If they were reviewing numbers, predictions, statistics, I'm told he'd say, "Get me That Gal in Pennsylvania." And no, my feminist sensabilities weren't offended. Jeez. It was Walter Cronkite. And he appreciated my computer.

We all ate, breathed, slept with those computers and their paper-cut generating punch cards. I had a telephone permanently planted on my shoulder, spent countless hours with researchers, reporters and staff primarily from the Big Three networks.

My eyes burned from staring into that tiny monitor. Who knows how much radiation I picked up. (Could explain a lot, come to think of it.) I learned to speak a new language, then translate it into a format non-nerds could understand.

When it was all over, Jimmy Carter had won the PA Primary. And I made plans to spend a week in Jamaica.

What was the best part? Letters I received from NBC, ABC, CBS, UPI and AP applauding our efforts and efficiency in providing the best information of any primary state in the country.

Which was my favorite? Here's the quote: "Mr. Cronkite was most impressed with you and your staff. He sends his personal thanks for a job very well done."

And that's the way it was.

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Blogger lolalane said...

What's the big wheel for? Does the computer sail the ocean blue? Now, that would be advanced.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

Wow. I hope you have that letter framed.

11:32 PM  

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